Sunday, May 05, 2013

"I Don't Know" as a Reason to Write and to Teach Writing

The New York Times runs a regular series of posts by guest bloggers on writing. On April 29, Tim Krieder posted ( an entry, “The Power of ‘I Don’t Know’,” with a passage that bears directly on first year composition, one of our core markets. Krieder writes:

This voice is trained into us early on, back in high school or Comp 101, when we’re taught to make our arguments as succinct and cogent as possible, omitting wishy-washy qualifications like “in my opinion.” You’d think these disclaimers could go without saying; every piece of writing includes the tacit caveat: Or I could be wrong. And yet quite a lot of readers respond to your personal observations with wounded outrage when they fail to reflect their own experience, as if you were proposing your idle speculation as totalitarian law. That rhetorical pose of weary expertise has metastasized to the Internet, epitomized by the opener: “So let me get this straight.” It seems telling that this smug, knowing tone has become so endemic at the same time that the amount of information available is so numbing, and actual expertise so rarefied, that almost nobody knows enough about anything anymore to have the right to any opinion at all.

Composition struggles with this tension – getting students to write assertive arguments about things new to them, that by definition they do not know yet. Some instructors meet the challenge by inviting their students to write about things they do know, or at least care to learn, but very often that deepens the impulse of the writer to be assertive. Armed with more authority, they mimic more deeply the certitude they think academic writing calls for.

So here’s what I think I know: it is possible to urge students to write assuredly about being unsure, clearly about confusion. But it’s a different kind of thing to do that, and I suspect many teachers would need help creating a pedagogy of ‘I don’t know’. I don’t know if it’s possible to create heuristic software that might support that, something that brings forth and celebrates doubt and curiosity. I imagine it might be possible, but the trick might be that what it gives writers isn’t always certain and quantifiable, the way a quiz score is, or they way a spate of rubric averages are. And that uncertainty, while the point, might be unsettling to teachers who decide what students will do in their courses.

Or maybe that’s what we might explore, rubrics instead of heuristics that foster alternatives to pretended authority – rubrics for doubt, rubrics for curiosity, rubrics for humility, rubrics for serendipitous insights.

I don’t know if people would want those, but I do think teaching from and with them would make the class different, maybe over time safer for students to be honest about what they don’t know.

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